There was an interesting juxtaposition of successive posts on The American Scene on Wednesday*. In one post, Alan Jacobs links to a fascinating story on Wired, which lays out how leaf cutter ants avoid the very problems that plague urbanised human society with traffic congestion by instinct. Basically, they never get stuck in traffic, because they behave, well, rationally:
Of the returning ants, some were empty-mandibled — but rather than passing their leaf-carrying, slow-moving brethren, they gathered in clusters and moved behind them. This seemingly counterintuitive strategy — when stuck behind a slow-moving truck, are you content to slow down? — actually saved them time…
The trick here, of course, is that ants do not experience egoism:
“One dominating factor in human traffic is egoism,” said University of Zoln traffic flow theorist Andreas Schadschneider. “Drivers optimize their own travel time, without taking much care about others. This leads to phantom traffic jams which occur without any obvious reason. Ants, on the other hand, are not egoistic.”
The question, therefore, as Jacobs points out, is whether there is “any .. way to prompt people to learn these lessons? Or is unthinking, reflexive egotism invincible? It seems to me that the prime problem here is that the leafcutter approach only works if pretty much everyone applies it. I’m not sure that partial compliance would have much effect.”
Right. Enter the post directly below on the Scene, by James Poulos. He quotes the report you may have seen a while ago about the behaviour of the Titanic’s passengers:
[..] British passengers, who queued for a place in one of only 20 lifeboats provided for the 2,223 on board, had 10 percent lower chance of survival than any other nationality.
In contrast, Americans, who reportedly elbowed their way to the front of lines, had a 12 percent higher probability of survival than British subjects.
“Be British, boys, be British!” the captain, Edward John Smith, shouted out, according to witnesses.
“Being British” meant to forget mass panic behavior — everyone looking after themselves — and rather follow the social norm of “women and children first.”
Well, there you go then. The Brits suffered from their own selflessness because they were not among themselves, and their efforts to put community ahead of ego were crushed by those darned selfish Americans. But in a more or less mono-cultural (or -national) setting, then, the Brits were apparently able to apply a leaf cutter ant ethos to their community interaction – by invoking nationalism. Problem solved!